Corn is king in Iowa. Everything that grows there ends up buttered on a plate, or in a silo.
Nobody associates Iowa with trees. When trees get in corn's way, corn wins. Trees go to make boards to raise barns to store more corn. In fact, I doubt if Iowans have a big leaf problem this time of year. There probably aren't 10 yard rakes in the whole state.
At least, that's the image Iowa portends. The truth is, there is plenty of shade in that part of the country. Not to mention the fact that Iowa is harboring two of the most curious trees around.
One of the trees, a cottonwood, is a growing in the middle of the road. The other is an oak tree that swallowed a farmer's plow. Both trees are more than 100 years old and have become modest tourist attractions in southwestern Iowa, where they stand seven miles apart, just a few minutes from I-80.
You'll find the aged cottonwood sitting smack in the middle of the intersection of two quiet country roads, its 18-foot girth a sober reminder to motorists to slow down. The 100-foot tree has been directing traffic for more than a century, and woe to anyone who threatens it.
"It's blasphemy to even think of cutting it down," says Paul Walther, the agriculturist for Audubon County. Local residents watch over the cottonwood, though no one lives within one-half mile of the "Tree in the Middle of the Road."
Picture postcards of the tree are available at the gift shop in nearby Anita (population 1,100). Gene Andrews, the local newspaper editor, took the photograph and hung a 16-by-20-foot blowup in his office.
Andrews says the Tree in the Middle of the Road has never caused an accident. Traffic is sparse, and it isn't like the majestic cottonwood is on the way to any place. "You can see the tree well, coming down a hill toward it in all directions," says Andrews. "I've never seen a sign tacked onto it either. Politicians might try it, but they'd probably get shot."
Harold Stadsvold, 82, used to haul cream down that road. He remembers one sign on the tree years ago: an advertisement for a nearby mortuary. "I'd come over that hill, see the tree and the sign, and I'd take it easy," says Stadsvold. "That's the only reason I know that nobody hit the tree."
According to legend, the tree grew from a cottonwood stick used by a surveyor to mark the county line before the Civil War. It's plausible.
"Cottonwoods are easy to propagate," says Walther. "If the ground were wet, then the stick just took root and away it went." He estimates the tree is 130 years old and quite healthy. Just don't ask him directions to see it. Tourists are always getting lost.
"The big problem is finding the darn thing," says Walther. "There are so many unmarked turns. There are farmers who live a couple of miles from the tree who can't tell you how far away it is."
Residents considered putting road signs from the town to the tree, but declined when it was learned they would need at least six signs.
You'll know when you get there, they say. You'll be dizzy and disoriented from the twists in the road. You'll feel like you're traveling through another dimension. . . . That's the signpost up ahead! Your next stop . . . the Tree in the Middle of the Road!
Several miles away, on Highway 71, stands an aged bur oak that serves as a living memorial to the Civil War dead. Local historians say that before marching off to battle, an Iowa farmer leaned his plow against that tree in a far corner of his field. The farmer died in the war. His plow was forgotten.
Years later, the remnants of a rusted plow were found on that spot. Except that the oak had embraced the plow, literally swallowing it up. Tree and plow are now as one.
"Scar tissue from the tree grew around the plow, and there is no way to get it out," says Walther. "The plow has almost disappeared into the tree. All you can see is the steel blade."
Walther does not dispute the tale. "We cored the tree, and it predates the Civil War," he says. "So we built a county park around the tree."
Imagine the lasting image the plow and tree would make in a film about the Civil War.